How could the best player in the school end up doing DIY while an unknown captained England? Howard Pattison ponders the thin line between international stardom and obscurity
A friend once told me that at school he had been voted the boy most likely to become a professional footballer. We never had opinion polls like that at my school. Most of us never had opinions. But if we had been asked which of our classmates would go on to kick a ball around a field for a living, I can guess who it would have been. Captain of the school team, played with both feet, read the game brilliantly. Perhaps he was a bit on the short side, but he was stocky with it. “A low centre of gravity” they would say now, like Maradona. Had stamina too, what they would call a real box-to-box player. Bryan Robson, perhaps.
With his professional contract a shoo-in, our hero would seem to grow tall with every passing day. We settled comfortably in the glow of his imminent fame, rehearsing the anecdotes we knew we would recount to our future colleagues: “I knew Gobby Bickersdyke at school,” I would say. “Quite promising at geography. If he hadn’t signed for Arsenal he would have been very big in road traffic control."
I ran into Gobby Bickersdyke (not his real name) a few years later and discovered that his burgeoning career had repeatedly spluttered and stalled like a damp car engine. He’d been around the clubs in the north-west, knocking on one door after another like an old-time hoofer looking for an agent. He’d had a few games with reserve teams – Oldham, Blackburn, Bury – but nothing had come of it. Instead, he told me, he had now gone into the family decorating business with his father.
How could this have happened? It seemed unimaginable that such talent could not find a home in even the lowest professional league. Was it possible that all the scouts in the north-west couldn’t see what was right in front of them? Suddenly it was hard not to examine one’s own prospects in the light – or gloom – of his failure. If he couldn’t succeed with a talent like that then all my ambitions, hopelessly bound to mediocrity, were worthless.
The story would be little more than an illustration of the gulf that exists between the gifted amateur and the humblest professional, were it not for its unexpected sub-plot. Back at school, two years our junior, was another footballer, also an inspirational leader much like our classmate. But whereas Gobby Bickersdyke captained the school team, the young pretender went on to captain his country. I still wonder that such an apparently narrow skill gap can mark one out as a reserve team reject and the other as an international. The fine line between success and failure is commonly understood, but the line between stardom and obscurity barely seems any wider. Certainly it wasn’t so wide that anyone noticed it at the time. At no point did anyone say that there was a wet-nosed, scabby-kneed boy in the third-year who looked every inch an England player. They might have made remarks about his clumsy handling of quadratic equations, but not a thing about his elegant control of a football.
Since I was blind to the dazzling career that was budding only a few yards away from me, I’ve been unable to get much mileage out of the story. This is probably just as well, since eyes inevitably glaze over when I say that I used to go to school with an England player. People only show an interest when I admit that I can’t recall a single thing about him. Others have unwisely chosen to indulge in some starry-eyed – and almost certainly incorrect – reminiscences. Not lies, exactly, but embellishments: the sort where people tell you that they used to have a kickabout with Paul Ince (not his real name) every Saturday morning and you could easily tell that he was something special. I’d have believed these stories if they’d been told by people who had ever watched a game of football in their lives. As it is, those people are the ones who, like me, can’t remember anyone at school who looked even remotely like that chap who scored in the World Cup finals. And there was certainly no one who had a shot on the turn like that.
Apart from the boy in my class, that is. How is it that the best footballer in school hangs wallpaper for a living, and the kid no one can remember has so much money he stuffs it in his cheeks for safe keeping? Surely there was a middle-ground that could have been explored. Is it really possible to spot the difference between an England captain and an interior decorator by the way one turns on a sixpence and the other a shilling?
In all probability the difference lies in the chance that is given to them. Perhaps our two heroes had much the same level of ability: one gets lucky, the other doesn’t, and after that each takes an inexorable journey up and down their respective paths. One can develop through the support of high-class coaches, nutritionists, physiotherapists and personal advisers. The other has to take his encouragement from barked commands to get the ball to the big lad up front; or from giving the manager 20 laps of the pitch, keen to avoid being the last one back and the ignominy of swabbing the showers. Who’s to say that, had their opportunities been reversed, Gobby Bickersdyke wouldn’t have played for his country? Talent is just as soon destroyed as it is discovered.
Happily, it’s also possible that he was spared a good deal of pain in the long run. Some years ago I went for a job interview and found myself talking to one of the other candidates. I asked him what he currently did for a living, and he seemed rather disillusioned in the way that he shrugged and said that he “played a bit of football for Rochdale”. Here was easily the best footballer I had ever met and he looked like a man who found life a prolonged struggle. It was most likely this man that the scouts were thinking of when they spotted the England captain and the interior decorator. That one might become an international player was probably not on their radar; that the other might have become lost and abandoned probably was.
They wouldn’t have said this when they knocked back Gobby Bickersdyke. Instead they would have told him he was half a yard too slow, a bit too short. Or maybe they would have said that he looked every inch the best painter and decorator in the country. For all I know he might now be a television personality as well, an expert on one of those home makeover programmes. There would be a kind of justice in that. Mind you, he’d be using a different name.
From WSC 266 April 2009